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Winter Solstice 2016: Sun sets on an important year for Stonehenge


Stonehenge is arguably one of the most recognised prehistoric landscapes in the World. In 1986 it was among the first places in the UK to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning Stonehenge was internationally recognised as a place of exceptional importance to all humanity.

For more than a decade research and archaeological field work funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has been deepening our knowledge and understanding of Stonehenge. The research has overturned previously held views on the origins and the history of the UK's foremost prehistoric monument.

The midwinter sun sets between the two upright stones of the great trilithon at Stonehenge
The midwinter sun sets between the two upright stones of the great trilithon. AHRC research suggest that midwinter was especially important to the people who built and visited Stonehenge. Image Credit: English Heritage

One of the most important and well-known features of Stonehenge is its alignment on the midwinter sunset and midsummer sunrise (solstice). A spokesperson from Historic England says, “The midwinter sun sets between the two upright stones of the great trilithon. Several pieces of recent research suggest that midwinter was especially important. Archaeological analysis of pig bones at the nearby Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls suggests that large scale feasting was happening here - particularly at midwinter."

This research was led by Professor Mike Parker-Pearson who headed-up a multidisciplinary team involving serval institutions including the University of Sheffield and University College London. The team’s research at Stonehenge spans three major research projects over 10 years and represents a £1.75million investment by the AHRC.

Ten years ago ‘The Riverside project’ discovered periglacial formations (ridges) which are coincidentally aligned with the winter solstice. Professor Parker-Pearson’s team believed it may have been the reason this site was first chosen by the first builders of Stonehenge and indeed that the main axis is the mid-winter sunset rather than midsummer sunrise.

It was the third and final project, ‘Feeding Stonehenge’ that examined what our ancestors might have eaten while building and visiting Stonehenge. It discovered domestic animals were killed and eaten in huge numbers, particularly pigs. Analysis of animal bones, found that most of the pigs were killed before reaching their maximum weight. This is strong evidence of planned autumn and winter slaughtering and feasting-like consumption in the winter season.

Both findings confirm the long-held belief that Stonehenge was built with an astronomical purpose. Professor Parker-Pearson says, “It’s always been the astronomy that has grabbed people’s imagination about Stonehenge. Of course astronomy is just a part of it, but certainly our discovery was that the main axis, the most important one, isn’t for midsummer sunrise, but for midwinter sunset.”

Arguably the most important discovery made during the last decade of research was the discovery of a second, smaller stone circle. Dubbed 'Blue Stonehenge', the discovery made the front pages of newspapers around the world.

When the new visitor centre opened at Stonehenge in December 2013, the research funded by the AHRC, contributed to a stunning exhibition through which visitors are able to discover the complex and fascinating history of Stonehenge for themselves. Professor Parker-Pearson says, “The research that the AHRC has funded isn’t simply going into dusty old tomes and academic journals. This has a really immediate impact. It’s very clear that our work has generated more visitors coming to Stonehenge because the discoveries have been front page in newspapers all around the world.

“So even if someone never read a book or looked at an article on Stonehenge, visitors here still have the chance to find out what the AHRC has supported.”

Dr Nick Snashall National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site said, “Antiquaries and archaeologists have been studying Stonehenge & Avebury for over four hundred years. But research funded by the AHRC is beginning to answer some of the big questions: who built them, how and why? And with the continued support of the AHRC these extraordinary landscapes look set to give up even more of their most intractable secrets.”

Looking forward

'New AHRC-funded research is taking place in area situated between the iconic prehistoric landscapes of Stonehenge and Avebury. Led by Dr Jim Leary, from the University of Reading, the three year project has been in the Vale of Pewsey, which has until now been a barely explored archaeological region, but one that is of huge international importance.'

The BBC’s Digging for Britain series featured a special episode on Dr Leary’s AHRC funded work. The programme focused on two major discoveries from the project’s 2015 field work. Firstly it looked at the exciting discovery of a new building inside the henge at Marden. Built around 2400 BC ‘Marden' is the largest henge in the country and one of Britain's most important but least understood prehistoric monuments.

The newly discovered remains of the building contained an unusual hearth which puzzlingly contained no ash, but instead an assortment of scorched rocks. It became evident that the rocks were being heated outside on a fire then brought inside the building and laid on the hearth. This led Dr Leary and his team to a hypothesis that the building was being used in a ritual where people sat round the hot stones and poured water over them to create steam – in essence an ancient sauna or sweat lodge.

Dr Leary’s research and fieldwork concludes in 2017 at which point the findings will be published in full.

See here to watch a film about the AHRC research at Stonehenge.

English Heritage will once again be welcoming people to Stonehenge to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Sunrise is just after 8am on Wednesday 21st December and visitors will be able to access the monument as soon as it is light enough to do so safely. Please see here to plan your visit.

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